Saturday, June 11, we carried on with our tunnel "detection," or at least tunnel hunting, as I still cannot say too much about this effort until the official press release. The weather on Saturday fit well with the history of the site, very cold and raining. The film crew, Alastair, and I were alone at the site. It is inconceivable how even 12 of the Burning Brigade (11 joined the partisans and survived until the end of the war) escaped as the forest is dense, the escapees were malnourished, the night was black, and the surrounding population was unsympathetic and even hostile to the victims and the shackled Brigade. Even language would have been a challenge as more than 90% of the population of Vilnius then spoke Polish or Yiddish, with less than 5% of the people in the City speaking Lithuanian as spoken in the nearby village.
Unique to Poneray amongst all the extermination sites in Europe, we have a dispassionate, day-by-day diary of observations from 1941 to 1943, from a Polish journalist, Kazimierz Sakowicz. The Ponary Diary. Sakowicz was a journalist and print shop owner in Vilnius until 1939. As a result of the Soviet occupation, he closed his print shop, and moved to a small cottage in the Ponary forest, commuting by bicyle to Vilnius to find any small jobs he could to support his family. On July 11, 1941, the first day of the executions, he heard gunfire in the woods. From then until his being shot in 1944, he observed and recorded the daily details of mass murder - who were the victims, who were the perpetrators, when, how, etc.-all in a scientific, unemotional, and even non-judgemental manner. His notes were hidden in lemonade bottles, and then buried, with the finding and publishing of the Diary first in Polish in 1999, and later in English in 2005, being a drama of its own.
But even with the Diary, the Soviet investigations immediately following the war, testimonies form escapees, Germans, LIthuanian villagers, previous geophysical surveys, remote sensing, ground based LiDAR surveys, and more, there is still much uncertainty as to how many victims perished in Poneray, in how many pits are they buried, and where are the pits. On Sunday and Monday, Alastair and I carried out surveys trying to locate and pinpoint what is probably the largest of the pits, what we call Soviet Plan Pit 1, referring to the designation on the original Soviet design for fuel or oil storage tanks.
Hunting for such a big pit, likely 30 or so meters across, in a relatively small area, would seem simple. We started with the 1944 German air photo, but it is not georeferenced and it shows a much larger clearing than the pit itself. Available LiDAR - laser scanning - data that show the microrelief and can see through the canopy was very useful, but the soil piles and berms directed us only to the general area of the pit. LiDAR cannot pinpoint the location as the LiDAR provides no subsurface information. Alastair did a scout with our ground penetrating radar system, covering a few kilometers of line distance. We did a 120 m tomography survey and sliced across a portion of the pit on Saturday. Sunday we did a few more slices over the Pit, and we now believe we have definitively mapped it.